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The story I am about to relate to you is one which will be vaguely familiar to some, the detail unknown to almost all. Australia’s contribution to the defense of the Empire in the very early days of WW1 is barely recognised and never acknowledged such was the extent to which we were taken for granted by Britain.

In my posting of The First Angry Shot I described the German strategy known as The Schlieffen Plan and its Pacific and Far East Asian Empire. It is suffice to say that Germany was very well prepared for WW1. If it had not been triggered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Grand Duke of Austria and his wife, then I am sure that some other cause or incident would have taken its place.

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How Britain ever became a major player in a war that began as a dispute within the Austro-Hungarian Empire is a subject that requires intense concentration. The fact is however, as we all know now, a move for independence by Serbia from Austro-Hungary ended up in a major conflict between Germany, France & Britain with Russia in the mix as well. The bottom line is that Britain, despite being the leading naval power in the world, was not prepared at all and its Pacific and far Eastern colonies were totally exposed to the German Squadron based in China.

Conventional wisdom would say to most Australians that the 1st AIF was the first Commonwealth military formation to be raised after 1901. It was not. That honour goes to a now forgotten force known as the 1st Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF).

On 6th August, 1914, the British government asked Australia to seize and destroy the German wireless stations in the South Pacific. Germany had wireless stations in several Pacific Island including Samoa, Nauru, the Solomons and New Guinea. These stations were critical to maintain communication with the German fleet. At the same time the Australian government also decided to raise and organise the Australian Imperial Force.

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The AN&MEF was to be made up of 1,000 men divided into 8 companies plus another 500 naval reservists.

The force was raised at Victoria Barracks and Mosman in Sydney in record time. In 8 days this force was issued with uniforms, weapons and sundry equipment, drilled, given a crash course in soldiering and ready for embarkation. A passing out parade was held at Moore Park in Sydney, the troops marched to Circular Quay and boarded the troop ship Berrima,passing through the Heads for an unknown destination.

When the ship reached Palm Island off the North Queensland coast the troops went ashore for field training and live firing practice for the first time. When they were ready to leave they were joined by a naval fleet lead by the cruisers HMAS Sydney and HMAS Encounter, two submarines, a supply ship and a collection of coal boats. From there they moved to Port Moresby, a British colony at the time.

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On 11th September, 1914 the flotilla arrived at Blanche Bay in German New Guinea and the troops from the Berrima landed and captured Rabaul on New Britain Island. Another party of naval reservists had been landed at another site nearby and encountered stiff opposition. The Berrima was despatched to provide reinforcements and destroy the wireless station some miles inland. In the fighting, a medical officer, Capt.Brian Pockley, and two others were killed. Two other seamen and an officer were killed and several were wounded in the fighting to become the first casualties of the war. In the end the Germans were overcome and the wireless station destroyed but the Governor had retreated to a defense line in the hills above the station and refused to surrender. A map of the fortifications was recovered in the fighting and used to mark an aiming point for the naval party’s 12 pounder gun. After a few rounds were lobbed on the target the white flag went up and the Governor surrendered with all of his forces.

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The Governor was allowed to return to Germany on condition that he took no further part in the war. German civilians were allowed to remain in their homes if they took an oath of neutrality and the native constabulary serving with the German Defence Force were transferred to the new Australian administration.

The commander, Colonel Holmes, was criticised for this leniency but his defense was that he was ordered to occupy and not annex the German colony. His actions were subsequently approved but on 13th September, 1914 a Proclamation was made, the flags of Australia and the Union Jack were raised and New Guinea became an Australian colony.

In the weeks that followed companies of the NM&MEF set out to round up other German settlements in the nearby islands and the Solomons and garrison the larger establishments.

Shortly after Proclamation Day, a group of three Germans who had been given parole escaped into the bush and beat up a missionary and his wife with green jungle canes. A houseboy escaped and raised the alarm back in Rabaul. A punitive force was despatched, rounded the three escapees up and bought them back. Colonel Holmes convened a battalion parade and assembled the German population. He condemned the three escapees to the same punishment as they had inflicted on the missionary and his wife. In turn, the three were lashed across a large chest and a burly MP delivered retribution in the same way. The three were then shipped back to a prison camp in Sydney under armed guard.

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The attestation papers of the men who joined the NM&MEF only provided a period of service of 6 months. Those of the AIF, which took longer to organise, were signed up for the duration of the war. In February, 1915 the garrison was relieved and returned to Sydney. 80% of these men re-enlisted in the AIF.

Subsequently, more battalions of this force were recruited and it remained as the occupying force for the duration of the war. Colonel Holmes re-enlisted in the AIF and was killed in action in 1917.

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The 1st Battalion of the NM&MEF was the first force to leave Australia under direct control and command of Australian officers without Imperial supervision. Despite having achieved all of their objectives, having some of their compliment killed and wounded, no recognition was ever officially bestowed on these men for the service that they gave to the Empire.

At the time of this incident Australia was the lone defender of the Empire in the whole of the South West Pacific. The Singapore naval base did not exist, the Royal Navy contingent in Hong Kong was unable to cope with the German South Pacific Squadron and Japan, although an ally, was not part of the Empire.

As a further addition to the casualty list, one of the two submarines of the escorting fleet, the A.E.1, was lost with all hands and without a trace. It is presumed that she hit a reef or a submerged coral rock but no trace of her has ever been found to this day.

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The information for this contribution has been gleaned from the annals of the Returned Services League of Australia (RSL). In particular a contribution published in the Reveille in 1955 by one of the men who was actually there as part of the force, Lance corporal John Martin. Each state branch of the RSL published its own newsletters under various headings. In WA it was The Listening Post, In Victoria Mufti. In NSW Reveille. In Queensland Digger. In SA it was The Signal and in Tassie On Service. These newsletters, which have been collated into book form, are an absolute treasure trove of real life experiences written exclusively by the men, and boys, who were actually there on the spot. Some of them were written in the trenches while shells were passing overhead, others while lying at a dressing station or a field hospital, most were written in the cold hard light of day after the hostilities were over. The authors range in rank from Generals down to privates and include those in between. Some these names have been made famous by the recording of their exploits by more august scribes but I must warn you Marylou, if you decide to dive into the deep end of these journals make sure you have that big box of tissues handy.

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